Turbulence likely for Merkel as rival elected president

Mon, Mar 19, 2012, 00:00

TWO DECADES after unification, Germany has a head of state to complement its chancellor from the former East Germany. Just don’t expect them to like each other.

With a tired smile of satisfaction, Lutheran pastor Joachim Gauck enjoyed a two-minute standing ovation in the Reichstag yesterday afternoon.

“I take up this position with the endless gratitude of a person who, after a long trek through the political desert of the 20th century, has finally and unexpectedly found his [way] home again,” he said.

With 80 per cent of the special electoral college, Germany’s third presidential election in three years yesterday delivered the most decisive vote.

Deja vu hung over the day for the 72-year-old: in June 2010 he had sat on the same spot, listening to the applause for the man who beat him to the job, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s candidate Christian Wulff.

After Wulff’s resignation last month in disgrace, German political leaders agreed – after much backroom dealing – that last time’s bridesmaid should become the bride after all.

Mr Gauck reminded his audience that this “wonderful Sunday” was the 22nd anniversary of the first free elections in East Germany, ending a totalitarian rule that had begun with the Nazis.

“After 56 years of dictatorship we were finally able to become citizens,” he said. “I knew then that I would never miss another election.” Though the role is largely ceremonial, Germany’s 11th head of state is known for his strong personality, meaning Germany is headed for an interesting political cohabitation.

Mr Gauck’s presidential ambitions, and Dr Merkel’s attempts to thwart them, have provided a belated lesson for west Germans that sharing an East German background does not automatically make for fast friends.

Their antipathy reached its peak at his 70th birthday party when Dr Merkel said in a speech that they could be proud of their shared East German biographies and involvement in the 1989 revolution.

Mr Gauck took issue with this, pointing out that, while he and his family were spied on and harassed by the East German authorities, Dr Merkel was a blue-shirted member of the communist scouts, the Free German Youth (FDJ).

He added: “It wasn’t at all necessary, dear chancellor, to become the [FDJ] secretary for agitation and propaganda.” Dr Merkel’s frozen smile was on show again after Mr Wulff’s resignation. Wrong-footed by her junior coalition partner, she was forced to accept Mr Gauck as a cross-party presidential candidate or risk bringing down her government.

She played down their differences yesterday, saying: “We’re all adults. I look forward to a good collaboration.” Mr Gauck enjoys public approval of 80 per cent, following his role as the first post-1989 custodian of East Germany’s Stasi archive. But he has been criticised for allowing himself to be feted as an East German dissident.

“He never belonged to the opposition. He only left the protective walls of his church at the end of 1989,” said Hans-Jochen Tschiche, co-founder of the main East German political movement, the Neues Forum.